During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
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Is misty and mild and not like January at all.
This is our fifth winter at Maplehurst, and we’ve never waited so long for real snow.
But it’s cold enough. The woodstove in the kitchen is pouring out heat while I study my stack of seed catalogs. I am often asked about my favorites. This year, I’ve ordered vegetable seeds from Seed Savers, Park Seed, Burpee, and Pinetree. I love the conservation work of Seed Savers as well as their highly curated collection of heirlooms, and I appreciate the very low prices at Pinetree (though, twice, my Pinetree seeds have been mislabeled).
I’ve also ordered flower seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds and dahlias from Swan Island Dahlias. In a month or two, I may order a few new David Austin roses. Last year, I planted four Lady of Shalott shrub roses. While orange has never been my favorite color, the flowers have a great deal of pink and coral, and they were so healthy and vigorous and constant in their blooming that I fell in love. Plus, the name. I care very much about names in paint and roses and crayons, though not so much in lipstick.
If you are unfamiliar with David Austin roses, they are often called “English roses.” They are bred to look and smell like old-fashioned roses, but they bloom continuously. This year, I have my eye on Munstead Wood though I don’t yet know where I might put it. However, I never let that stop me.
Now you might be wondering why anyone would choose a once-flowering antique rose if they could plant a modern English rose. Personally, I love to plant both. The modern roses give me flowers in spring and fall (and frequently in-between), but the antiques put all of their effort into one extravagant spring explosion of scent and color. There’s nothing else like it. Besides, no one ever complained that a peony only blooms in May.
Besides seed catalogs, I am consulting my favorite and most practical gardening book: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. I am reading a recently-released book called Getaway with God: The Everywoman’s Guide to Personal Retreat by Letitia Suk. This one is a great resource for any woman considering a personal spiritual retreat in the new year. I am also finishing a library copy of Phyllis Tickle’s wonderful little book What the Land Already Knows: Winter’s Sacred Days. I may have shed a few tears when I discovered that this gem is out of print and used copies cost a small fortune. Now I know what to look for at the used bookstores!
In the kitchen, we’ve been enjoying Jenny Rosenstrach’s new cookbook How to Celebrate Everything. Attention: she has a recipe for a thin crust pizza with garbanzo beans (among other toppings), and it may be the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten. I know. I was skeptical, too. Now I want to eat it every day. It’s the perfect salty, savory pizza for winter. Possibly, I will tire of it in time to resume my homemade pesto pizzas in summer. Possibly.
Speaking of the kitchen, I have a new post up today at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on the new year, how to cultivate a habit of hospitality, and includes my method for home-brewed kombucha.
What new things are you most eager to see, do, make, or grow in 2017?
Happy New Year! Thanks, as always, for reading along. I am grateful for each one of you.
(P.S. If you’d like to make more frequent virtual visits to Maplehurst, I share a photo on Instagram nearly every day. I’d love to connect with you there.)
When I picture in my mind this turn from Advent to Christmas, it looks like a stream of water becoming larger and faster until it pours itself out into a big, beautiful sea.
And, I do think it is like that. But, it is also like sitting next to a friend at the Christmas Eve church service. It is getting up and making the traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls. It is heading to the kitchen to prepare the turkey or ham or (in our case) the Beef Bourguignon soup. It is cleaning up the mess of wrapping paper. It is a big sandwich made with leftover everything and eaten in front of the fire.
In other words, Christmas is both extraordinary (like frosty starlight and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) and beautifully ordinary (meals cooked and shared, phone calls made and received).
We all know this. We have all lived this. We have seen Christmas come and go, again and again. But I mention it because it is so easy, with the waiting and the longing, to forget that what we have been waiting for is mostly already with us. Not entirely, no, but more and more every year Christ is with us and his kingdom is more fully realized.
Perhaps, what we have been waiting for is not more of Jesus, necessarily, but eyes that are open more widely to the fact that he is always and already with us – in so many seemingly ordinary ways.
And so I wish you an ordinary Christmas. A Christmas of friendship and special food and thoughtful gifts. A Christmas of candlelight and carols and maybe a hand to hold or, if not that, a very good book.
I wish you a Merry Christmas.
The word for this second week of Advent is … prepare.
Let the master of the house wash your feet and hands. Let him wrap you in fine clothes.
He has invited us to feast.
A prayer for the second Sunday of Advent:
Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live in us and we in him;
and that we, with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your kingdom.
(a traditional Anglican prayer)
Autumn is a time for hoarding books. Like a squirrel and its acorns. Like my children and their Halloween candy.
Winter, the reader’s favorite season, will soon be here. And, yes, despite what we might say, winter is our favorite season. We can admire the beauty of fall, the fresh breezes of spring. We can enjoy mucking about in our gardens come summer. But, as readers, we are always at our happiest curled up with a book.
Short, dark days are welcome because they let us off the hook. What else is there to do but pull the blanket closer and go on reading our book?
Here are a few recommendations to help pad your winter reading list.
The first is welcome throughout the year, but I usually only remember it come fall. The Autumn Board Book, by Gerda Muller, is one of four wordless board books focused on the seasons.
I’m afraid I lost some of you when I wrote board book. But this is no ordinary board book.
As one of my favorite picture book characters would say, board books are the raisins and zeros of the book world. Condemned to be chewed upon. Containing only simplified, shortened versions of classic stories. I like to have a few lying around for the actual baby, but, otherwise, I give them a pass.
Except for these.
Muller’s four books are exquisite. I keep one nestled in with the candles and bowl of acorns on our kitchen table. It’s the kind of book you will want to pick up and enjoy for at least a few minutes every day.
These books make great first gifts for a new baby, but they are wonderful for older children, too. A good friend with grown children recently purchased all four. She told me she’s setting them aside for future grandchildren, but I’m quite sure she’s enjoying them in the meantime.
Autumn … the year’s last, loveliest smile. – William Cullen Bryant
One of my favorite things about this hinge season between summer and winter is the food. No more quick pestos or sauteed garden veggies. Now is the season for slow-simmered curries and meaty sauces and cranking the oven back to high.
Whether or not you care much for food or cooking, you will enjoy Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader’s Circle). Reichl, a celebrated food writer and restaurant critic, is the exact right person for memoir. Not only is she a great writer, but she is curious. She collects stories and experiences like I collect books.
This memoir is full of fun and sweetness, but it tells some hard stories, too. I realized while reading it that quite a few of my favorite memoirs are written about girls growing up with mentally ill mothers. I have no idea why this is. I do know that Reichl’s book is an excellent addition to a list that includes memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls.
The most powerful things about this book is the way it makes you care. First, for Ruth, and then for her family and friends and even the stray characters who cross her path. Reichl sees the world (and writes about it) through a lens of love. And I believe we only see the world, other people, and our own lives truly when we look with love.
My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner. – Ruth Reichl
Luci Shaw is one of my favorite poets. I’ve mentioned her here before. She is a poet of faith and substance and beauty.
What the Light Was Like: Poems is a perfect collection for this season of shifting light. Reading poetry slows us down, something I always long to do this time of year, and Shaw’s work, especially, calls us to notice the natural world and to listen to its messages.
Light has a peculiar quality of transforming what it touches, like gold foil over wood. In Hebrew the word for glory has the sense of heaviness, as if light adds to the bulk of its significance. When I see the road that runs in front of my house and the bushes along the sidealk touched with sunlight, even the black tarmac and the faded winter leaves look glorious. – Luci Shaw